Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Strategies of World War II Commemoration in Hong Kong and Singapore

Daniel Schumacher


In the Second World War, Hong Kong and Singapore were key areas of conflict that crucially linked the war experiences of both Europeans and Asians. The humiliating British military defeats in 1941/1942, and the many hardships suffered as well as the resistance effected by the local populations during the subsequent Japanese occupation significantly changed the political playing field in Hong Kong and Singapore. In the aftermath of the war, these changes also found marked expression in the territories’ memorials, remembrance practices, and wartime narratives.

This dissertation examines the various interrelated struggles fought by both state and private bodies within changing hierarchies between 1945 and c. 2013 for a certain share in the authority over public representations of the wartime past. It revolves around three principal strategies, conceptualized as the “systematic use of public resources and powers by public agencies to achieve public goals” (Mulgan 2009) – namely, the sensitising (Part I), victimising (Part II), and commercialising (Part III) of memories.

Part I chiefly looks at the British colonial authorities of Hong Kong and Singapore between 1945 and c.1965. It examines their – mostly unsuccessful – attempts at re-legitimating their claim to rule by both integrating the local non-British war dead into the official canon and by lending local (mostly Chinese) community leaders a more active ear in the state-conceived decision-making frameworks.

Part II places more emphasis on multi-ethnic (non-)state agents who, in the wake of decolonization, challenged and indeed profoundly transformed the commemorative infrastructure laid out by the British. Most noticeably, narratives formerly celebrating self-sacrificial death had to make way for a view that fashioned the war’s casualties as largely passive victims. This shift was framed by new concerns for ‘nation-building’ and by a trend to place one’s own suffering in relation to the biggest atrocities committed during World War II – such as the Holocaust or the Nanjing Massacre – and claim compensation on an international stage accordingly.

Part III privileges a selection of private agents, operating in the 1990s and 2000s, who had no first-hand recollections of the war themselves. As they felt the local wartime history had been all but forgotten by the post-colonial state, they embarked on endeavours that further reinvented the existing commemorative infrastructures and contributed to their gradual commercialisation. Indeed, with the state eventually joining their efforts, commercial viability became the new benchmark; one which continues to dominate public commemoration in both Hong Kong and Singapore, and dictates the strategies applied by the relevant agents.

Analysing these phenomena through the lens of strategic war commemoration allows us to map local acts and means of structuring and regulating public space and society beyond the political turning points of regime changes. It also sheds light on the commemorative forms that ‘travelled’ across borders and on the agents who carried them. It thus points to the interconnectedness of the colonial and post-colonial histories of Hong Kong and Singapore and to the transnational connections and ruptures in the remembrance of World War II in Asia.

This doctoral dissertation was supervised by Prof. Jürgen Osterhammel (Konstanz) and Prof. Dominic Sachsenmaier (Jacobs University Bremen).